By Brian M. Sammons
Okay, once more, we go back to the arcane arcade this week when Cthulhu Eats the World. This time, I have a game with a title that should be easily recognizable to any Lovecraftian worth his/her essential salts.
Miskatonic is and old-school point-and-click adventure videogame, the kind made famous by game makers LucasArts and Sierra. This type of entertainment was THE computer game back in the day, but, for a long while, they all but disappeared, thought of as ‘quaint little things’ in the era of multimillion-dollar first person frag fests. Thankfully, over the past few years, point-and-click adventures have made a comeback, thanks to the emerging downloadable game market that allows smaller companies to make cheaper games (as in, production costs not quality) and sell them directly to the fans. This is nothing but a good thing in my book and many niche tastes can be satisfied. Like, oh, say, fans of good ol’ H.P. Lovecraft. So, grab your books, pencils and Elder Signs. We’ve got a late night class of Medieval Metaphysics 101 to attend as we take a look at the first chapter of this multipart game.
In the first episode of Miskatonic called “The Inhuman Stain,” you play as Aurinda, a young woman new to the creepy college as a just-hired professor. Before long, Aurinda is wrapped up in a mystery involving strange animal attacks in the nearby woods that leave limbless corpses; her predecessor who went mad about something and is now locked up in the nearby asylum; diaries full of mystical ravings; creepy artifacts; and more trappings that would be right at home in a Lovecraft tale.
That said, the game isn’t scary in the least. Now, it’s very hard for videogames to properly evoke fear. Most of the time, the best they can do is the occasional jump scare. I can only imagine that has to go double for point-and-click games. However, all is not lost, as, what the game lacks in horror, it more than makes up for with humor. Not whack-you-upside-the-head slapstick, or dirty locker room and/or bathroom humor, but subtle, sly and clever references, and nods, for both fans of Lovecraft and classic videogames to enjoy. And if you’re a fan of both, like I am, then this game is sure to hit your funny bone again and again.
As for the gameplay, its typical point-and-click fare. You move your character over largely-static-but-good-looking backgrounds, moving your mouse’s cursor all around, looking for hidden hotspots that you can click on. Once you find such an item, person, or area, you can examine it, try to talk to it, or sometimes pick it up and take it with you so that you can use it in some obscure, sometimes very random, way to further your game. Case in point (and this is by far the easiest puzzle in the game): You find a garden trowel and pick it up. Later, you come across a freshly tarred road, so, in typical point-and-click gameplay, you try all your items on the tar until you find out you can get some of it onto your trowel. Later on, you have to cross a lake, but the only boat around has a hole in it. Using the garden trowel with the tar on it for the boat fixes the hole and off you go. That right there is probably the most straightforward of the puzzles you must solve in this game. So, if thinking outside the box is not your strong point, you should probably avoid this game, as you are sure to hate it. I, however, love these types of brainteasers and the puzzles here can get fiendishly clever. No joke, there are some real toughies here, so consider yourself warned.
Perhaps the only drawback I had with this game was the sometimes ridiculously hard-to-find hotspots for you to click on. On more than one occasion, they were very tiny and only by slowly dragging the mouse cursor over the entire screen did I find them. That’s not fun, challenging, or exciting. That’s just tedious. Yes, that’s also par for the course for some point-and-click games, but it doesn’t mean it was any good way back then or any good now. By all means, keep the clever writing and the devious puzzles, but let the players find the things they need to find in order to progress the story without having to closely inspect every pixel on the screen.
Still, that was a minor, if somewhat frustrating, quibble. By and large, the first episode of Miskatonic was an old school joy filled with funny and offbeat characters, well-written dialog and jokes, nods to various Lovecraft stories, and some dastardly difficult puzzles. It has everything a good point-and-click adventure should. If you have a hankering for those types of games, then Miskatonic more than makes the grade. If you would like more information on this title, or to order a copy for yourself, you can do so here.